Today, I’m revisiting an issue that amazingly still exists in advertising: the fear of a screenshot of a “bad” ad placement and why the legendary 25-year-old media planner gets blamed.
Also: a final dispatch from Advertising Week, courtesy of Mike Shields of . Mike and I also recorded a new episode of The Rebooting Show to discuss. I appreciate Mike’s help this week. I’m interested in doing more collaborations like this, and in 2024 will add a full-time writer to augment my own work. More on that later.
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The screenshot industrial complex
After a while of covering the media industry, I came to a conclusion that the most convenient scapegoat was the 25-year-old media planner. This composite character was blamed for anything that didn’t make sense in how ad budgets are allocated. At conferences and in private, publishers would roll their eyes at the callow employees who controlled enormous ad budgets and made decisions for obscure reasons that usually were about what was easiest and would put them at the least risk of getting in trouble.
And of course, there was truth to this. My shorthand for the power of the 25-year-old media planner goes something like this. The marketing function inside most companies is looked at with suspicion by the CFO. Enter procurement. Nobody likes transaction fees. And to a company looking for distribution, agencies are transaction fees. So the procurement people cram down the agencies’ already thin margins.
Enter the 25-year-old media planner, who isn’t paid all that much but historically got perks from ad sellers like free trips to Knicks games, suite life at Taylor Swift concerts,
booze-filled boondoggles conferences, free mani-pedis, SoulCycle outings, jeans parties, Apple picking… you get the idea. I have to laugh when I hear people act like the allocation of ad budgets is a science with formulas that neatly fit on spreadsheets and dashboards. It’s not even art. It’s magic.
So anytime something doesn’t make sense in media – and that’s often – the 25-year-old media planner gets blamed. It got to the point where I wanted to hear directly from this person. That led to the creation of a series of anonymous Q&As at my last job, starting with the 25-year-old media planner. That was 2012. I get older, the media planners stay the same age.
Last night, we gathered together a group of both ad buying executives and publishing executives at a private dinner, supported by Outbrain. One of the hot topics was the idiocy of crude keyword block lists that keep advertising off news by blocking an array of terms that stand in complete contrast to the CMO purpose talk. These lists keep advertisers away from terms like “Muslim,” “LGBTQ” and “domestic violence.” This creates a perverse incentive for publishers to avoid covering the social issues the CMOs go on and on and on about feeling so strongly about.
The response from one agency exec is that the CMOs don’t even know about these lists. They’re a checkbox in a DSP, and the 25-year-old media planner is working for the weekend and doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of The Screenshot. Now, the screenshot is also a recurring character. The screenshot is when the CMO does get involved. It’s when someone finds an ad next to a beheading video — why were they watching beheading videos? — or in some place deemed “unsafe” for brands. This gave rise to an entire brand-safety industry, which is incentivized to have this “problem” continue. (One of the reasons I’m skeptical about the moral panic over made-for-advertising sites is the evidence being used is produced by vendors who exist to address the problem.)
Since Trump was elected in 2016, brand safety and its weird cousin called “brand suitability” have become new gatekeepers for publishers. This was always somewhat political. Activists who wanted to take down Breitbart have created a lot of collateral damage – and it hasn’t done much to affect the viability of that segment of the media market. “Something needs to be done” is usually the prologue to a disaster.
This brand safety moral panic has made news content unable to make money from advertising, despite scant evidence normal people – not the vigilantes who have made a life choice to try to find ads in weird places – have a negative connotation of a brand next to news content about wars and domestic violence. When there’s an easy button, most people hit it, especially if they're an overworked (OK, maybe a little hungover) 25-year-old media planner.
Some publishers will just avoid news altogether. It is a sensible business choice. BuzzFeed’s foray into news was disastrous in retrospect. Meta wants nothing to do with news, and Google is trying to give it an Irish goodbye. I don’t see that affecting their stock prices. But news publishers have “the mission thing,” so they need to find a way to pay for newsrooms. There are not enough subscriptions to go around, so new models are needed to make news an economically viable product.
One publisher said they were treating news as a top of the funnel loss leader. It creates a big audience – people complain about news but consume a lot of it, go figure – but the real money is in lifestyle packaging around “cultural moments.” News publishers have long subsidized news with the food and auto sections. More publishers are focusing on packaging up specific audiences and vertical topic sponsorships in a bid to cut down reliance on a fickle programmatic ecosystem where blunt tools like keyword blocklists are most commonly deployed.
To me, it’s a reminder that for all the talk of data, measurement and automations, many issues inevitably come down to humans who make human decisions based on incentives. CMOs are not incentivized to address these kinds of issues because they are busy being inducted into the many marketer halls of fame out there. They’re being lauded as brave all the time, so no need to get into the weeds here. Too messy. As Ricky Watters memorably said: “For who, for what?” I don’t blame them. Better lauded than pilloried. Look at what happened to the marketer who did the Bud Light influencer program with Dylan Mulvaney. The person marketers behind that were hounded out of a job. Incentives matter.
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Reading the Ad(vertising) Week tea leaves
Next in Media’s Mike Shields braved the Manhattan Mall (beats Javits) for a vibe check of Advertising Week and what, if anything, it all means.
It’s almost time to put away the lanyards. Another Advertising Week has come and gone. After a couple of toned-down Covid years, the event was back in full force this year. Some takeaways:
The vibe is improving
While nobody in the ad world is ready to declare their recession fears over, there was less of a downbeat mentality than if this event happened in, say, the second quarter. Publishers are starting to see stabilization turn into glimmers of growth in the typically robust fourth quarter. It’s not time to break out the champagne just yet.
The rollercoaster of the last three years will continue. There’s likely no going back to when media companies and brands had clear visibility into the next 12-18 months like they have in the past, but the advertising business overall seems to have regained some confidence. It helps that despite of inflation, the US keeps beating job number expectations, and Americans keep buying stuff like crazy. The question is how quickly can marketers react to changing conditions, and how much caution is now baked into their psyches.
The battle for the future of TV has commenced
Once again, there was much discussion about the growth in CTV consumption, and the massive ad opportunity that creates – if the traditional TV companies and brands can get their acts together. As promising as ad-supported streaming is for the NBCUs and Paramounts of the world, there is continued consternation about how to measure and evaluate this new medium.
This is the inevitable result of the collision of two very different parts of the media ecosystem. For years, the TV crowd looked at digital as their unruly younger sibling. The idea of trading the Upfronts for the commodization of programmatic wasn’t so attractive. Of course, linear TV is on its way to the hospice, so streaming is the future. But will it take the shape of TV or digital? The likely answer, outside Netflix, Amazon and big networks, is the latter, since the explosion of FAST channels and the like mean fragmented audiences that will need to be reaggregated.
Tech is coming for TV budgets
Advertising Week is at its heart a PR play. And companies mark the date on the calendar for product announcements. Of course, when tons of companies do this, you’d think companies would instead look for other times where their news doesn’t get lost. But that’s for the PR industry to sort out.
Netflix is clearly looking to turn the page quickly on the abrupt ouster of its ad chief. announced a slew of new ad offerings, including sponsorship opportunities centered around binging. At the same time, The Information reported that Amazon is taking an aggressive stance as it tries to nab big chunks of TV budget for its Prime Video products. You don’t hear these streaming-first players worrying about how to measure cross platform this or how to apply addressable XYZ tactics in linear TV -they just keep moving forward.
Glimmers of AI optimism
Not surprisingly, artificial intelligence was a common theme during this year’s gathering. A keynote featuring Google discussing AI’s potential drew a huge crowd on Monday, actually slowing down the agenda. In private, the impact of generative AI on already declining search traffic was treated as a fait accompli. The only question is timing.
Yet many execs see the upside in using AI tools to do more with less, even if those on the information side of the media industry nearly unanimously expect a “tsunami of crap.” Every crisis is an opportunity. The crap tsunami should make trusted sources of information more valuable.
Check out The Rebooting Show for an episode in which Mike and I discuss the oddities of Advertising Week and read the tea leaves for what, if anything, it says about how the media industry is evolving. The Rebooting Show is available on Apple, Spotify and other podcast platforms.
Thanks for reading this week’s dispatches from Advertising Week. Thanks to The Rebooting’s partners this week: Ex.co, Outbrain, DanAds and Burt.
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